1. RETURNING TO LIFE, Vrindavan, India
Long before sunrise the widows of Vrindavan hurried along dark, unpaved alleys, trying to sidestep mud puddles and fresh cow dung. There’s a certain broken sidewalk on which volunteers set out a big propane burner every morning and brew a bathtub-size vat of tea. The widows know they must arrive very early, taking their place on rag mats, lifting their sari hems from the dirt, resting elbows on their knees as they wait. If they come too late, the tea might be gone. Or the puffed rice might be running out at the next charity’s spot, many alleys away. “I can’t rush in the morning — I’m not well,” a widow complained. “But we have to rush. You don’t know what you will miss.”
It was 5:30 a.m., a cool dawn, a sliver moon. A few widows had wrapped themselves in colorful saris, but most wore white, in India the surest signifier of a woman whose husband has died, perhaps recently, perhaps decades ago. In the dim light they moved like schools of fish, still hurrying together, pouring around street corners, a dozen here, two dozen there.
No one has reliably counted the number of widows in Vrindavan. Some reports estimate two or three thousand, others 10,000 or more; the city and its neighboring towns are a spiritual center, crowded with temples to the Hindu god Krishna and ashrams in which bhajans — devotional songs — are chanted all day long by impoverished widows who crowd side by side on the floor. The sanctity of bhajan ashrams is sustained by steady chanting, and although this is nominally the role of pilgrims and priests, the widows earn hot meals, and perhaps nighttime sleeping mats, by singing these chants over and over, sometimes three or four hours at a time.
They live in shelters too, and in shared rental rooms, and under roadside tarps when no indoor accommodation will admit them. Vrindavan is about 100 miles south of Delhi, but the widows come here from all over India, particularly the state of West Bengal, where allegiance to Krishna is intense. Sometimes they arrive accompanied by gurus they trust. Sometimes their relatives bring them, depositing the family widow in an ashram or on a street corner and driving away.
Even relatives who don’t literally drive a widow from the family home can make it plain every day that her role among them has ended — that a widow in India, forever burdened by the misfortune of having outlived her husband, is “physically alive but socially dead,” in the words of Delhi psychologist Vasantha Patri, who has written about the plight of India’s widows. So, because Vrindavan is known as a “city of widows,” a possible source of hot meals and companionship and purpose, they also come alone, on buses or trains, as they have for generations. “None of us wants to go back to our families,” a spidery woman named Kanaklata Adhikari declared in firm Bengali from her bed in the shelter room she shares with seven other widows. “We never talk to our families. We are our family.”
She sat cross-legged atop the bedsheet, even though her limbs were contorted by age and disease and she was able to walk only by bending over almost double and shuffling. Her white sari was draped loosely over the top of her head; in India the shearing of a new widow’s hair was once common practice, to announce the end of her womanly appeal, and the widow Adhikari appeared to have been recently reshorn. “I keep it this way because my hair was his,” she said, and squinted at her guests, the foreigner and the young interpreter, as though perplexed by the question. “A barber comes and cuts it for me. A woman’s greatest beauty is in her hair and her clothes. Once my husband was not there, what would I do with it?”
How old was she now? “Ninety-six.”
And how old when her husband died?
I was in Vrindavan because photographer Amy Toensing and I were visiting extraordinary communities of widows, over the course of a year, in three very different parts of the world. It was not private grieving we set out to explore, but rather the way societies can force a jarring new identity on a woman whose husband has died: pariah, exile, nuisance, martyr, prey.
When the United Nations in 2011 designated June 23 as International Widows’ Day, the official explanation was a somber one: that in many cultures widows are so vulnerable — to abusive traditions, to poverty, to the aftermath of the wars that killed their husbands — that widowhood itself must be regarded as a potential human rights calamity. The women Toensing and I met, like the caseworkers and volunteers trying to help them, became our teachers in the minutiae of special cruelties. In Bosnia and Herzegovina we spent a month with one of history’s singular concentrations of war widows, women who have spent two decades searching for and burying the scattered remains of more than 7,000 slaughtered men. In Uganda we learned the phrase “widow inheritance,” which for Ugandans does not mean the estate a widow receives; it means that the in-laws illegally seizing all her inherited property assume they are inheriting her too, as sex partner or wife for whichever relative they choose.
And in Vrindavan, listening to a social worker named Laxmi Gautam describe with fury the widows she has found begging because their families sent them away, we asked whether Gautam had ever imagined what she would change if she were given the power to protect women from these kinds of indignities. As it turned out, she had. “I would remove the word ‘widow’ from the dictionary,” she said. “As soon as a woman’s husband is gone, she gets this name. This word. And when it attaches, her life’s troubles start.”
The charitable organization of an Indian-born British business magnate, Raj Loomba, prodded the UN into sanctioning an annual widows’ day. Isolation and invisibility make it hard even to figure out how many widows there are in the world; the most ambitious data gathering has come from the Loomba Foundation, which provides widows support internationally and recently estimated the total number at around 259 million, with caveats about how poorly many countries track their own widows’ presence and needs. The June 23 date was Loomba’s idea too. This was the day his father died in India, Loomba has written, and although more than 60 years have passed since then, the kinds of stories he tells about what happened next — his widowed mother shunned as “inauspicious” at celebratory events, marked for life as an omen of bad fortune — were repeated every day by Vrindavan women Toensing and I met.
A widow must not dress in colors or make herself pretty, because that would be inappropriate to her new role as eternally diminished mourner. A widow must eat only bland food, in small portions, because richness and spice would stir passions she should never again experience. These are fading Hindu rules, largely dismissed by educated Indians as relics of another century, but they are still taken seriously in some villages and conservative families. Meera Khanna, a Delhi writer who works for a widows’ advocacy organization called Guild for Service, observes that the stigmatizing of widows comes not from the Vedas, the Hindu scriptures, but from generations of repressive tradition.
“In the Vedas nowhere is it ever said the widow has to live a life of austerity,” she told me. “There’s a line that says: You, woman. Why are you crying for the man who’s no more? Get up, take the hand of a living man, and start life anew.”
We planned our visits to Vrindavan, and Varanasi, a city northwest of Kolkata that also draws thousands of widows, to coincide with a simple campaign: making it possible, during celebratory festivals, for widowed women to join in. This is more subversive than it might seem. All over India the holidays of Diwali and Holi are occasions of public joy and merriment. Diwali includes gifts, bright lights, and fireworks; Holi is carried into the streets so people can “play Holi,” as Indians say, flinging brilliant powders and water at each other.
For a woman expected to live out her remaining years in muffled dignity, nothing about this kind of exuberance used to be considered acceptable. “Once you become widowed, they say you are not allowed to do any festivals,” a charity worker named Vinita Verma told me. “But we want these ladies to be a part of society. They have a full right to live their lives.”
Verma is vice president of Sulabh International, an Indian organization that provides support services and small monthly stipends to widows in shelters in Vrindavan and Varanasi. A few years ago — tentatively at first and then on a bolder scale — Sulabh began arranging Diwali and Holi events for widows in the two cities. Even in private, indoors, some of the women needed time to learn to relax among holiday flowers and Holi powders, Verma said. “They felt, ‘If I touch this red color, some bad thing will happen to me.’ ”
But by 2015 the holiday festivities in the “cities of widows,” as Vrindavan and Varanasi are sometimes labeled in the media, were moving purposefully outdoors. No denunciations appeared in the Indian media, and when Toensing and I were in India, the only complaint we heard about plans for the widows’ festivities was that they made for photogenic show with little substance — that what the widows really need are more comfortable lodgings, meals they don’t have to sing for, families that will take them home, communities that won’t label widowed women useless and inauspicious.
“The real change has to come from the societies that produced them,” said Gautam, the social worker who would like to strike “widow” from the dictionary. Gautam’s home usually houses a few widows unable to find lodging, and when I asked what labels might suit these women better, it was obvious she’d considered this before too. “Mother,” she said. “If she’s not a mother, she’s a daughter, perhaps a sister. She’s also a wife. It’s just that her husband is not alive.”
It seems important to remember too: The Vrindavan widows can be fierce. It takes stamina to chant for three hours without break, to squat on a hard temple floor, to bustle through unlit muddy streets in search of the next meal and hot tea. When I arrived, in November 2015, Diwali was about to begin, and one afternoon I followed Verma as she prepared for the Sulabh events, which would include a boisterous outdoor procession, fireworks on the river, and a thousand new saris for the widows to wear and keep as their own — in any colors they might fancy. The saris were a gift from Sulabh, and a Vrindavan store had them stacked on display; widows in the charity’s stipend program were to arrive in groups over the course of a few hours, examining and choosing as skillful Indian sari-shoppers do.
Inside the sari store my interpreter and I watched the first widows push their way toward the stack, study the saris, and summon the shopkeeper. “I like those on that other rack better,” a woman said. “Can’t we choose from those?”
No, the shopkeeper explained, those were for sale. “Humph,” a widow said. She fingered the cloth of a charity sari. “Not especially good quality,” another widow said. “Could you please move over?” another widow said, and the widow she was elbowing said, Why should she — there was already enough space, and another widow said the breath of the widow beside her smelled foul, that she smoked too many bidis, the strong Indian cigarettes tied together with string. It took longer than expected to get everybody attended to, and I watched one quartet of widows walk out without new saris, harrumphing to each other. “As if our time had no value,” one said.
The Diwali procession and riverside fireworks would prove very grand, full of singing and sparklers and saris both white and colored — astonishing colors, to an outsider’s eye: sapphire, scarlet, lime, magenta, saffron. Many Indian news photographers came. Smoke swirled, fireworks lit the river pink, floating oil lamps made glowing circles in the moving water, and in spite of this my sharpest Vrindavan memory is of those four dignified widows disdaining their gift saris and marching out the door. They stayed close to each other, wrapped in widow white, chuckling, and when they stepped off the sidewalk together to cross the busy street, the traffic stopped to let them pass.